Never-Better, Better-Never, Ever-Waser… Or?

While reading Gopnik’s treatise The Information, I tried to categorize myself into one of the groups he describes: in the face of the Digital Age and the naturalization of the Internet in our everyday lives, am I a Never-Better, Better-Never, or Ever-Waser? My experience with the Internet could place me into any camp. As a Never-Better I have benefitted countless times the seemingly magical qualities of the internet: the mirror which lets me speak face-to-face with my family while living eight thousand kilometers away; the invisible brain which helps me decipher any question; the oracle in my pocket which brings missives about friends, foes, and the weather. My life is inarguably better for these technologies. But I can also be cynical: as a Millenial Better-Never, I long for the days I never knew when lived experience was prime. I imagine it was a time when one’s thoughts, actions, reading habits and desires didn’t seem constantly covered by a cloud of surveillance, and where marketing existed in its corner and didn’t bleed into one’s mental space. But really, if I’m going to be honest, did those days actually exist? A Better-Never’s nostalgia is a trick – a coping mechanism – a denial of accepting humans as eternally fallible creatures no matter the technological era. The Never-Better’s idealism is a kind of trick, too: the Internet today is not magic, but human-made– and in human hands, prone to any of the misabuses humans can commit, no matter the technological era.

This leaves me to consider myself an Ever-Waser. As a generally pragmatic person this category does make sense. Dr. Hannah McGregor encapsulated the Ever-Was worldview during the introduction to our Publishing History seminar: new media doesn’t eradicate old media, it merely reframes the technological landscape. As a nascent publisher, especially one with an interest in disseminating art in honest and inspiring ways, I have to embrace the new media landscape of the Internet, taking comfort in the idea that non-digital forms still have a place somewhere and that art has survived, and even thrived, through every technological epoch. Placed cozily in this camp, I can calm myself in the face of an uncertain future and move steadily forward with a publishing practice.

When considering these categories for society as a whole, however, it’s hard to be as pragmatic. If the global socio-political events of the past two years have taught us anything, it’s that it’s impossible to lump society into one homogenous, agreeable group. What do we mean by “society”, anyway? From my subject position I could say society is North America, is the Western world, are English-speaking countries, is the Internet-using population – until the borders of the definition stretch so far around the globe that they meet at the other side and then there are no borders at all. Within this borderless, Global Society, there are still innumerable camps of Never-Betters, Better-Nevers, Ever-Wasers, each with their own subjectivities and agendas for using the Internet. Instead I want to suggest a fourth category to add to Gopnik’s taxonomy: the Never-Wasers. Never before has the world had the kind of situation we have now. It is one in which the power structures that exist in the physical world don’t hold the same control in a digital world: marginalized subjectivities now have the opportunity to address or circumvent these structures without violence or physical upheaval, an ability undeniably aided by the Internet. Furthermore, there is a new player: the technology itself, the machine learning that is becoming embedded in the nature of the digital world and which is affecting the reality of the socio-political, physical, ecological world. Gopnik writes: “It is the wraparound presence… of the machine that oppresses us,” and that “our contraptions may shape our consciousness, but it is our consciousness that makes our credos, and we mostly live by those.” However, we’ve moved beyond the fact of the Internet being merely a “presence” or “contraption.” It is a society in and of itself, a virtual reality overlaid a physical one, but with no less real repercussions. Human “consciousness” and thus “credos” are influenced, expanded and rewired in the face of a multitude of subjectivities and an extra layer of reality, the human world will expand, collapse, and change in ways we can, at this moment, only speculate.

Never-Betters, Better-Nevers, and Ever-Wasers

When I was young, Walmart opened in my town of 8000. I refused to go. We’d just read a short story in school about the Confederation Bridge, and how when it opened the ferries shuttling people from the mainland to PEI and back were losing all of their business and were going to have to close down. I’d never been on a ferry, and I thought that now I was never going to have the chance. If I went to PEI I’d have to drive. So I was not going to support Walmart. What if it meant the end of the rest of the stores in town?

Back then, I was a Better-Never. I wanted to go back in time to when things were whole and happy; to the places in my favourite historical fiction novels and to the time before my parents got divorced.  But as I grew I realized that the past is not as cheery as we would like to believe, and that there is a lot of important information that has been left out of history. I took an undergrad psychology class where we talked about our tendency to give the past glowing reviews, which as Google reminded me is known as “rosy retrospection.” And I realized that the future has its perks, like how time-saving a 10-minute drive is compared to a 75-minute ferry ride (and yes, they are still operating the ferry).

So it’s true what Adam Gopnik says in “The Information: How the Internet gets inside us”: the more you read, the more your “heart tends to move toward the Better-Nevers, and then bounce back toward someplace that looks more like home.” I read and read and continue to read, and although talk of Artificial Intelligence sometimes makes me want to run right back to the Better-Never camp, I tend to spend most of my time with the Ever-Wasers.

For the most part I am logical and contemplative (or so I like to believe). Of course it makes sense that something is always going on, and that that something will have its pros and cons. The world is not stagnant, stuck between the past and the future. We are in the present, and things are happening all around us. And because of that, it’s hard to take a step back and try and pinpoint where our society as a whole is at.

I’m not sure that we can classify our entire society as either Never-Betters, Better-Nevers, or Ever-Wasers. As Gopnik points out, all three kinds tend to show up at every discussion regarding new technologies. To pick just one to be a snapshot of our time would be to leave many other important voices out of the conversation. For example, just because Donald Trump takes up an enormous space chanting about how America needs to me made great again does not negate the other half of the population championing LGBT rights, women’s rights, and other liberal values. There will always be people on both sides of issues and innovation, and multi-sided discussions, however wild and inaccurate they may be, are a cornerstone of democracy. We need to have space to discuss changes and innovations as a society, lest we fall victim to confirmation bias or worse.

As history and the Better-Nevers know, innovation intended to better our lives often has unintended negative consequences. We need the Never-Betters to push us towards innovation, but we also need people with foresight to consider repercussions of innovations (and these are often the people who study the past) to offer criticism and feedback. Depending on how you define our society, there will always be hundreds of thousands, if not millions (or even billions), of people with their own opinions and ideas. All types of people play a role in the pace we evolve at and the decisions we make. We are never just one thing.